In summer of 2014, I helped out at a friend’s conservation project, based in the rural areas within and around Bulawayo, in Zimbabwe. The project is called Children and Nature Conservation Zimbabwe Trust (CNCZ). While its primary goal is the research and conservation of the Southern ground hornbill, its focus and activities are primarily on people, and the local communities. This includes: teaching lessons in the local primary and secondary schools on many wildlife topics; involving people in the research of the birds, in the form of sightings, reports, recordings, utilising local knowledge and engaging and engrossing local people; providing local schools and maternity clinics with help, with bread, with equipment, and; providing veterinary care and rabies treatment for the dogs and other domestic animals of the community. Conserving a bird species, then, by dedicating the vast majority of your time and effort to the human communities that share space with it.
CNCZ is, like more and more modern conservation projects, about changing attitudes and resolving the problems that people face. I helped out with the teaching project, forming ideas for lesson topics and creating lesson plans, and teaching the lessons too. One topic we did a lot of was that of food chains and food webs. Having already taught lessons on hornbills, their life cycle and diet, and their behaviours (often the sum of people’s knowledge about the birds was that they break windows, and seem to disturb and disrupt crops), food webs were a good opportunity to put the hornbills in context, and to begin changing attitudes – learning why they break windows (mistaking their reflection for a rival) and whether they are negatively affecting crops (they are actually a positive, eating pests and acting as scarecrows to primates that do cause problems).
Other attitudes, too, beyond those relating to the hornbills, were explored. With a food web mapped out, linking humans to lions to leopards to cattle to primates to hornbills to insects to plants to maize to maggots to soil to the sun and each to the other and all of the others to each, I twice asked the class to put their hands up when I pointed to the most important part of that web of life.
First time round, early on in the lesson: Cows? No hands. Lions? Some hands. Humans? All hands.
Second time round, at the lesson’s end: Lions? No hands. Humans? No hands. The sun? All hands.
Only fifty minutes and a blackboard littered with my scarcely legible handwriting separate the two. Granted, some put their hands up because others put their hands up, and some because they knew what I wanted to hear. And yes, it takes a lot more than that (or a lot more of that) for them to journey from knowing which answer is correct in a school setting to possessing a new, behaviour-affecting worldview. But this and other lessons, the organisation as a whole and others like it, that people-focused approach to conservation, can (and does (and will)) do more, ultimately, for wildlife than most wildlife-focused approaches. That’s not to denigrate the huge impact and importance of many wildlife-focused conservation efforts of the twentieth century. But the change that is happening in the twenty-first, towards a focus on education and community involvement and development, is clearly working, and I feel that that shift of focus should be even more pronounced now, and encouraged, and increased. By no means stopping altogether projects and research solely focused on wildlife, but moving on, and quickly, to things more relevant and less exhausted.
But don’t just go to places to teach, and tell, and tell off. Listen, and learn, and then lend-a-hand.
You won’t convince farmers and parents of children who walk alone to school in rural areas that to have lynx once again in Scotland will be not only a positive thing, but safe (safer than cows, or deer) unless you understand why it is they recoil at the idea. Chances are their reasons are not valid ones; chances are they kind of know that already but need reassurance and convincing regardless. It ranges from naïve to immoral to vilify poachers in central Africa, when most of the slaughtered elephants are killed by men forcefully taken as children (taken by men forcefully taken as children…), provided with guns and hatred, living the kind of tense, uncertain, unsafe, day-to-day, moment-to-moment life that would be familiar to the wildlife you may go over there to protect, in a few countries that just do not function as countries anymore. If there is a urbanised leopard living alongside your community somewhere in India that got your dog last week and may kill your daughter tomorrow, I am not going to demand that you please leave it alone because there aren’t that many of them left. Resolving the issues plaguing people will lead to resolving the issues plaguing wildlife.
There are governments in developing countries that do better by their wildlife than ours ever has, or seemingly will. There are a great number of people who do suffer from living alongside dangerous animals, and yet do not retaliate because of their own innate (and not handed to them by us) empathy and understanding, instead joining or setting up and encouraging conservation. There are a great number of people who would benefit hugely from the money poaching would bring them, yet choose to struggle on making money the harder way, sometimes even through the life-threatening and poorly paid route of becoming wildlife rangers and anti-poachers. That makes them heroes. But, the point is, it doesn’t make those other people villains.
It is a human world, first and foremost. We are not intrinsically more important than any other life on Earth, but that is the just the reality of it, and the human aspect cannot be ignored, or simply pandered to occasionally. A lot of people and organisations realised this a long time ago, others more recently, and their change in approach has achieved more than those people and organisations that have either not involved people, or done so superficially and ineffectively. The human aspect shouldn’t be considered the concern of things outside of conservation. It should be the focus of it.
Children and Nature Conservation Zimbabwe Trust (CNCZ):
(Originally written for Trek-Eco Adventures, found here.)